Summary

  • WHAT: Washington Foreign Press Center On-Background, Off-Camera Briefing
  • WHEN: Friday, October 4, 2019 at 2:00 pm
  • WHERE: National Press Building, 529 14th Street, NW, Suite 800
  • BACKGROUND: Justice Department officials and an El Salvador Attorney General’s Office Official will discuss capacity-building efforts in the three Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) to promote a more secure and stable region as a whole. They will also discuss efforts in combatting, disrupting, and dismantling MS-13 through aggressive investigations and prosecutions.

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  So good afternoon.  My name is [Senior Justice Department Official].  I am a prosecutor for the Department of the Justice but currently I am [title] at an office that falls within the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice called OPDAT, O-P-D-A-T, which stands for the Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Assistance, Development, and Training.

We are an office – as I mentioned earlier, we fall within the Criminal Division.  We are an office that was created in 1991 out of certain needs in certain countries where we were asked to assist in developing rule of law programs and helping them transition their legal systems.  We work with foreign assistance funds that are provided to us by the Department of State through different bureaus.  One of the bureaus is INL, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.  We also get funding from the Bureau of Counterterrorism.  We get some funding from Department of Defense and other bureaus within State Department.

With those foreign assistance funds, we deploy federal prosecutors, who we call resident legal advisors, and together with the embassy – with the U.S. embassy mission and with the requests from that foreign country, we put together what we called work plans and we assist them in whatever their needs are within the rule of law.  Those needs could be from helping them draft legislation, helping them draft new constitutions, to assisting them in training and developing their prosecutorial teams, their investigative teams.  We also work with the judiciary of these countries, all in the hopes that we all follow the rule of law, right?

Depending on the country where we work is the type of program that we implement.  Our resident legal advisors are all extremely experienced federal prosecutors, and they bring a wealth of experience and the drawback from the Department of Justice and our law enforcement agencies to assist these countries in helping them endeavor to improve their security and their justice systems.  I direct the Western Hemisphere program, so we have – we, unfortunately, don’t have programs in every single country in Latin America, but we do have a good – robust programs in certain countries.  We have a very strong program in Mexico, where we’ve been assisting them transition to the accusatory system, and they since 2016 when they passed in their constitution that they had to transition there.

We have a very strong program in the Northern Triangle.  That’s El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  We have one of our oldest programs in Colombia, which was one of – it was not the first program that we had at OPDAT, but it’s been – for over 10 years it’s been a very strong rule of law program that we’ve had in Colombia.  And we currently have a program in Brazil that’s focused on intellectual property, computer hacking and intellectual property.  And we have two programs in Paraguay and the tri-border area – Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay – and those programs are focused on terrorism/counterterrorism issues and terrorist financing.

The programs in the Northern Triangle started at different stages.  The first one was El Salvador around 2012 and it started out of a need to assist El Salvador on – they were having issues with extortion crimes and gang crimes.  So we started a program on anti-extortion and anti-gangs.  This program has been extremely successful, greatly in part to the assistance of the prosecutors that we have – we have deployed, in particular one prosecutor.

And we today have in El Salvador a program that covers three different topics.  So we remain with the anti-extortion, anti-gang program. That particular program developed what we call the task force model, which is a model that is being implemented in other parts of the world also as a very effective investigative and prosecutorial way of handling crime.  We have a very strong anti-corruption and anti-money-laundering program also in El Salvador, and about a year or so or two we started – a year and a half – a judiciary program, which is a continuation of a program that covers almost all of Western Hemisphere that we call the Judicial Studies Institute.

So this is what I’d – I would call it – it’s like a spinoff, but I don’t think that’s the proper word for it.  But we’ve trained El Salvador judges in the Judicial Studies Institute, but now we’re focusing more closely with the El Salvador judiciary to further assist them in developing bench books, other procedural – like, procedure.  No, no, procedural guides.  That’s the word that I was looking.  Procedural guides so they can manage better the caseloads that they have and in hopes that their judicial system becomes more efficient, right?

In Honduras the focus there has been fighting transnational crime, drug trafficking, money laundering, human trafficking, assisting them with migration issues also.  And in – that was Honduras, right?  Did I say Honduras?  Yes.  And we also have a strong tax program there.

And in Guatemala also the program envelops the fighting transnational crime, also anti-gang, money laundering, corruption – all those crimes.

The beauty of our program in the Northern Triangle is that we have been able to not only assist individually each of these countries by the different specific programs that we have, but our resident legal advisors, primarily led by the El Salvador team, have been able to focus regionally and develop a very strong regional program not only on the prosecutorial side but also on the law enforcement with other U.S. law enforcement agencies and our counterparts in those countries in combatting gang crime and other transnational criminal organizations.  And from the news you’ve probably have heard that we’ve done several Operational Regional Shields, which have produced hundreds if not thousands of arrests in El Salvador, but also have produced arrests here in the United States against very violent characters with very successful conviction rates.

We’ve also, in El Salvador, in our anti-corruption program, we were able to help and mentor the prosecutors investigating the former attorney general, right, and the former president of El Salvador.  And they were able to successfully prosecute and seize assets of public funds these individuals stole from their country.  So I think as a general – that’s the scope that we have.  I don’t know if my colleagues here want to add a little bit more in terms of the general scope or if you have any specific questions, or do we move on to more specifics?

MODERATOR:  Yeah, I think it would be helpful for [Senior Justice Department Official Two] to talk about the success and collaboration in El Salvador.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Good afternoon.  My name is [Senior Justice Department Official Two].  I’m a resident legal advisor in El Salvador, career prosecutor with the Department of Justice.  I’ve been there for almost five years in El Salvador.  Our initial assignment was to assist Salvadoran prosecutors to combat gangs, primarily through the development of task forces.  We saw that Salvadoran authorities had a variety of different experience combatting gangs and different ways that they went about doing it, and it really depended on the area of the country.  But a lot of the efforts were very isolated at first, very competitive units, not really coordinating together.

One of the things we decided to do was after seeing – observing how they were building their cases, was to help them develop teams to take more coordinated approaches to fighting the gangs.  Instead of targeting lower-level individuals of these organizations – which they were historically able to convict yet had very little impact on the structure – we worked with them a lot on having more targeted, more sophisticated investigations, which take longer but in the end can have a greater impact on the ability of an organized crime group to operate and control territory.

We’ve seen over the last few years, as the police and prosecutors have been trained together, as they’ve worked together, as they’ve formed teams, they’ve been able to build cases that have had greater impact on these groups.  After seeing the successes within certain areas of El Salvador, we had those prosecutors who were experiencing great success in El Salvador train the rest of the prosecutors.  So essentially every prosecutor in El Salvador that handles organized crime, gang, extortion, homicide, and narcotics cases, they’ve all been through training programs funded by the U.S. Government.  Our funding comes from the State Department, so that’s how we’re able to have all these trainings and events that we do.

Once we saw that the Salvadoran authorities were particularly successful in targeting the gangs, and as their investigations became more and more sophisticated, we started seeing more gang operations or efforts to move outside of just El Salvador.  We held meetings with the attorneys general of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the United States in 2017, where one of the attorneys general said:  El Salvador, you guys are doing some great cases, but as you’re building these cases, you’re not really coordinating with us, and we’re seeing an increase in gang activity in our countries because they’re fleeing from El Salvador because you’ve targeted them.  How can we better coordinate?  This was in a meeting at the time with attorney general – at the time, Attorney General Sessions, who asked us to come up with a plan to basically go after gangs in a regional level instead of just office by office, country by country, as the gangs were operating transnationally.

Well, how can we better go after them on a regional level?  We formed a working group which is known as Operation Regional Shield.  Each attorney general signed off a memorandum of understanding that they were going to designate specific prosecutors in each country to meet regularly and go through the trends of the gangs, issues each country was facing in their investigations, as well as best practices that had been developed to combat these groups.

Since that time – that was March 2017 here in D.C.  Since that time, each attorney general assigned specific prosecutors.  We’ve met on about a bi-monthly basis, and we go through and not only discuss best practices but coordinate joint operations, really to try to give the message to the public, but more importantly to the gangs, that really you can’t just avoid prosecution by going to Guatemala and calling shots from there or coming to the U.S. or going to Mexico, but that we are working together as a region and we’re having results.

As the first few operations under Regional Shield happened, we saw an increase in these gang members going to Mexico and operating out of there because they were seeing Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, the U.S. working together, but Mexico was kind of different.  In the last several months, we have included in these working groups prosecutors from Mexico who are engaged with us, sharing information as to what’s happening n Mexico, and resulting in investigative assistance for all countries.  As we see if we see them increasing presence in other countries, we’ll invite those other countries to be involved in the cases as well.  But it’s a fluid sharing of information between prosecutors in these countries and the agencies – U.S. agencies and the investigative agencies – from each country trying to prevent the groups from operating out of other countries to cause damage in another country.

So in a two-year time period, from March 2017 when the attorneys general signed that agreement through May of 2019 when Attorney General Barr traveled to El Salvador and held meetings with the attorneys general in the region, just the prosecutors in El Salvador who we’ve worked with over the last few years, they indicted 7,439 gang members in that timeframe.  Guatemala also did significant – I don’t have the number for them nor Honduras, but they did significant investigations, arrests, indictments against the gangs operating in this country – in their countries.

So what we’ve seen is – and again, these are not police operations where police are rounding up individuals without any type of evidence.  This is cases where – these are investigations by prosecutors who’ve determined I have sufficient evidence to file charges against these individuals.  So some might say, based on the numbers, it sounds like a mano dura type approach, police are just rounding people up without evidence.  What we’re trying to – what we’ve worked with them on and what this operation has shown is that these are intelligence-led investigations, where prosecutors have made a determination – legal determination they feel there’s sufficient evidence to indict these people, which is a big difference from police just rounding people up.  So, yeah.

QUESTION:  Can you repeat, please, how many indictments?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  7,439 gang members and collaborators indicted in El Salvador between March 2017 when they signed that agreement, and May 2019 when Attorney General Sessions – Barr met with the attorney general, and they announced that at the press in El Salvador.  So that’s not including numbers in Guatemala or Honduras, but the significant – the greatest amount was by far out of El Salvador.  Many of these cases included, for the first time, money laundering charges against the gangs.  Multiple of the cases targeted the leadership elements, the national-level leadership of the gang.  It targeted the gang structures that were collecting the most rent in the country, which was helping finance the organization.  It also targeted specific cells within MS-13 that had the greatest impact at a transnational level.

So it wasn’t – the idea was not just to attack the greatest number possible, but also go after those who would have – by taking them down, arresting them, taking them out of circulation or operation, would have the greatest impact on their ability to continue to operate.  They still operate.  They do regenerate.  It’s a very large, large organizations with a lot of power and a lot of history and territory, and – but these operations do destabilize them and affect their ability, at least for a period of time, to have the same amount of impact on society.

QUESTION:  In – you mentioned that in the last few months, Mexico has been giving investigative assistance.  And you mean, like – this, like – is – could Mexico be doing more?  Is it enough, what they’re doing?  Because I think —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  It’s a new phenomenon for Mexico.

QUESTION:  Okay.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Mexico has different types of organizations, drug-trafficking organizations, that have been operating out of there for many, many years.  Central American migration has increased through Mexico, and we’ve seen that the leadership out of El Salvador that maybe historically would go to Guatemala, maybe they’d go to Honduras, have felt the pressure in those countries as well.  So a lot of them have either fled to the U.S., or stopped in Mexico.  And we’ve increasingly seen that those individuals often have leadership roles and are able to direct criminal activities in Central America and the U.S. by operating out of Mexico, more in a hidden fashion.

What this effort is attempting to do is, first of all, share information with the Mexican authorities that this is what’s happening, this is how these organizations operate in Central America, here’s what they’re doing in your country as well.  And then they’re also sharing with us, here’s what we’re seeing, we’re seeing homicides of groups here with links to Central America, we’re seeing them take certain territory in Chiapas, they’re marking their territory.

So at this point I feel they’re very helpful.  So we’ll see as time goes on, as the problem might – I can’t even think of the word in English – mudar, it can change —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Mutation.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  — will determine how we can best work together.  But the idea is we meet on a regular basis, we have communications platforms with them where we talk on a regular basis, and see how we can help each other.

QUESTION:  And how many of these cases in El Salvador are still in trial?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Most.  Most cases – large organized crime cases in El Salvador take around two years.  If there’s any delay in the process, it can take longer.  Similar to the U.S.  These cases would not go to trial within a two-year – most likely in most jurisdictions in the U.S., because some of the cases have dozens and dozens of homicides, extortions, drug trafficking.  They involve wire tapping, so the cases can take years to go through the process.  But I would say some of the cases that have already gone through, the process have resulted in really great convictions.  For example, last month, September was the first case under – in the history of El Salvador where they indicted individuals related to the gang for money laundering that resulted in convictions.  That was one of the cases that was taken down under Regional Shield.  It’s the second case where they attempted to convict gang leaders or – and associates on money laundering, but this is the first case where they actually obtained convictions.  And that’s one of the cases that was done under this operation.

So what we did is soon after that, convictions came out.  We had the prosecutors from El Salvador who handled that case, explained that case to Honduran, Guatemalan, Mexican, and U.S. prosecutors and agents – here’s how we built the case for money laundering against MS members in El Salvador, to basically share what worked, what difficulties they faced.  And this came as a result because Honduras had previously had some money laundering convictions in Honduras against MS-13.  We took prosecutors from El Salvador to see how they built that case, got ideas from there, and shared it.  Now, they’re in turn, through these Regional Shield meetings, sharing those ideas with prosecutors in other countries.

MODERATOR:  If you guys can just hold questions, if [Senior Justice Department Official Three] can talk more about the capacity building that’s helping further U.S. investigations and enhancing public safety here in the U.S.  And also, if you can just name the U.S. law enforcement agencies that are part of this effort.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  If you can add – I’m sorry – [Senior Justice Department Official Three], a little bit of the case-based mentoring to mention, so that they’re clear in terms of the scope of the RLA and how we truly assist them in mentoring.  Like, we’re not doing stuff for them, they’re doing it on their own.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  My name is [Senior Justice Department Official Three].  I am currently the resident regional attorney advisor for Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  I am with the organized crime and gang section of the Department of Justice.  I am an operational prosecutor down there in El Salvador.  And my primary mission is to develop U.S. investigations and U.S. cases with the cooperation of our Salvadoran counterparts, as well as the other Northern Triangle countries.

How this position came about because of – I used to be with OPDAT and worked with them for two and a half years.  How this came about was that after the visit of Attorney General Sessions and Attorney General Barr, what we’ve seen from a lot of the successes is that prosecutors in El Salvador are dedicated, capable, they have a high conviction rate in these type of cases, and a lot of their evidence had an effect on U.S. interests.

Sometimes there would be phone calls to the U.S., sometimes there would be money transfers, sometimes their witnesses would name things that were happening in the U.S.  So this position was created in order to work with the Salvadorans and other countries and, where possible, use that evidence in investigations in the U.S.  And so far, evidence has been used or will be used in investigations in Maryland, Texas, and New Jersey in different cases to support those.

As you may or may not know, MS-13 is truly transnational and the way it operates is a lot of its directions come from El Salvador.  A lot of approvals for murders come out of El Salvador.  They maintain that connection with El Salvador, which is relatively unique to MS-13.  But the – so then my role is – it’s Department of Justice funded.  But that’s only possible with the support of OPDAT and [Senior Justice Department Official One] was mentioning the case-based mentoring.  What is that specifically – I mean, I used to do that before.  It’s basically being an advisor to cases.  So if prosecutors – Salvadoran prosecutors have questions as to how do we investigate these financial transactions, the advisor would provide guidance on that.  Or if we have a witness, what are good ways to handle this cooperating witness, or what are good questions to ask.  What is the most effective way to present closing arguments.  It’s basically technical assistance with case-based mentoring.  All the work in all the cases are done by the Salvadorans.  That’s, I think, is a good summary of the case-based mentoring.

So the – our relationship with El Salvador, it’s – in the development of evidence, it goes both ways.  When – in the U.S. when we have evidence we try to share with the Salvadorans so they can use it in their trials.  So we have a high degree of confidence that the evidence obtained in El Salvador is obtained legally.  And if it is, we can use it in our cases in the U.S. and vice versa.  And we have our – we share evidence formally and informally down on the ground.

I do work very closely with two vetted units.  One unit is the Transnational Anti-Gang Unit, which is an FBI-run unit that has support of the international – INL support, and those are polygraphed-trained Salvadoran police officers who also have FBI agents as advisors.  And they investigate any cases with a transnational nexus.  Transnational TCI Unit – Transnational —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:   Criminal Investigations Unit.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  — Criminal Investigations Unit is HSI, Homeland Security Investigation.  Their primary focus is human smuggling and human trafficking, and it’s the same format.  And as you know, behind every tragedy that takes place at the border – the U.S.-Mexico border – there’s probably a coyote behind it.  So their main focus is disrupting those smuggling networks who also have a link with organized crime.

So with my job, I support those units as well.  They also – both units investigate gang activity.  And they’re INL-funded, OPDAT has trained them as well, and worked with them and the prosecutors to develop robust cases.  A lot of the cases is part of, I think, a populist tag (inaudible) TCIU.  They’ve supported a lot of these larger operations as well in El Salvador.  But those are Salvadoran institutions that receive support from the U.S. Government.  That’s about all I have.

MODERATOR:  And then (in Spanish).

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

MODERATOR:  (In Spanish.)

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

MODERATOR:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  So you want a question – so he’ll talk in Spanish, and then you want me to put it in English on the record?

MODERATOR:  Please.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Okay.

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (Via interpreter)  So good afternoon.  My name is [Prosecutor from the Attorney General’s Office of El Salvador].   I am [a resident legal advisor] in the attorney general’s office in El Salvador.  For the eastern part of El Salvador and the United States, there are common topics or common themes that join us because of the relationship that the U.S. eastern border has with our region in El Salvador regarding MS-13 crime.

MODERATOR:  If you guys are going to use his name just say resident legal advisor, you know what I mean?  Instead of – you’re quoting him.

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (Via interpreter)  So in that sense, precisely through the assistance of OPDAT and the resident legal advisor who coordinates all activities in El Salvador, around four years ago, we started having a series of activities and/or trainings, technical assistance geared towards our prosecutors training them on how to handle complex investigations as well as sharing of information.

So these trainings and capacity-building efforts we’ve also shared with investigative units.  And the universe that we investigate is very broad, however, we focus on anti-gang and the MS-13 crimes.

So the reason why we have focused these efforts with the assistance together with the United States response to the big risk and the danger that MS-13 presents in our country.

So that risk that we found out about and has been developed through the exercises and the trainings that we’ve had and the sharing of information, we learned that the United States also had that common goal of combatting MS-13 crime that was occurring here in the United States. .

So that situation motivated for – motivated the United States attorney generals to meet together with the attorney generals of the Northern Triangle, the three countries, a couple years ago to establish common strategies in order to combat these crimes.

So that level of coordination required a higher level of communication, a closer level of communication in order to focus and better coordinate.

So in the case of El Salvador, this – these efforts strengthened, through the assistance of the attorney – the regional attorney advisor from the Department of Justice to channel investigations or joint investigations – to channel the information between the different teams that are investigating the cases and that – that we’re handling.

Okay.  The results have been very satisfactory in El Salvador, as you can see from the numbers of 7,349 arrests regarding MS-13 in a period of two years.  But in the eastern part of the country, these numbers have increased, and we’re not just concerned about arrests, but we also are working towards and want them to be held accountable for their crimes.  Just in the eastern part of the country, in the —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Sailors.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Ah, sailors.  In the sailors program, we’ve had – (in Spanish) —

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  (In Spanish.)  We’ve had 222 convictions.

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (Via interpreter)  So this does not resolve the whole MS-13 or gang problem, but clearly there are positive results, and with the continued support of OPDAT in the United States, we can move towards that goal.

So one of the reasons I’m here in the United States responds precisely to further the exchange of information and the coordination on these topics, how to further identify similarities of how MS-13 is operating in the United States and in El Salvador, how the gang phenomenon operates, and how, for example, the MS-13 in El Salvador feeds into crimes into the United States or vice versa.

So also, the exchange of information that – we’re looking into the exchange of information to strengthen the cooperation and discuss also strategies which can lead to impacting these crimes, not only homicide, extortion crimes, but also the financial aspect of the crimes that foster that the crimes happen.

So that’s the reason why I’m here.  That’s what unites us to – with the United States, and hopefully we will continue our partnership to fight and combat MS-13.

MODERATOR:  So if you guys have any questions you want to ask them, feel free.

QUESTION:  According to the – all the investigations that you have developed in El Salvador, what’s the relationship between El Oriente and all the east coast and the United States that helps MS-13 to being a transnational organized crime organization?

MODERATOR:  I just want to say first, there are certain things that they’re not going to be able to discuss because we obviously don’t want to tip off the criminals and compromise any pending investigations, but —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I think that part can be answered in saying that MS-13 still – its members in the United States take direction from gang leaders in El Salvador.  So the eastern part of El Salvador has a history of people leaving to the U.S., from the time of the civil war, as far as I understand.  So there’s a great number of Salvadorans from the eastern area of El Salvador living in the United States.  So that creates – that tie fosters the ability also of the gangs to coordinate activities between the two countries.

QUESTION:  And you mentioned that this new effort and this new way of coordinating started in 2017.  Would you say MS-13 is stronger, is the same, is weaker?  Like, how would you – what – how do you see it now?  And what would be the main challenges?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I think the main challenge is the number of individuals associated with the gang.  So you can take down the leadership and it does de-stable them.  There have been specific cases where investigations afterwards, you see a timeframe where there’s maybe conflict or a period of time of reorganization where maybe they’re not as effective in their criminal activities.  But at this point, the organization still exists, right, so they still operate.  That’s the challenge, is what are the ways that’s going to impact them long-term to prevent them from regenerating after these operations that happen.

One of the things we’ve noticed is it’s not extremely effective for one country to attack the problem on its own, because what happens?  That group will flee to another country and operate from there.  What we’re seeing is as we operate as a region, as we share information as a region, we’re able to impact their ability to regenerate.

For example, you can arrest MS-13 here in the U.S., a specific cell of MS-13.  If you don’t touch them in the Northern Triangle, they will send people back up to the U.S. to fortify this group that got impacted.  If you also hit that same group in El Salvador, in Honduras, in Guatemala, it’s more difficult for them to send replacements up to the U.S. to rebuild.  So that’s a big part of this goal with this regional cooperation, is because we’ve seen historically you hit the group here, they send more soldiers back up.  Well, what if we hit the soldiers in all these different countries at the same time?  It is more difficult for them to send people back up or to re-establish itself.  It takes longer.

QUESTION:  And overall, would you say it’s weaker, the same for the moment, stronger?

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (Via interpreter)  So in fact it’s not the same.  The impact has – that we’ve created has made them reconfigure themselves, so now they are looking for – they are now looking for individuals who have a greater decision power.  So these individuals absorb other criminal groups so that then they can join and these individuals then can direct them.  So they’re interested in keeping the brand name, even if they don’t have the same degree of operability.  And that’s where you can see that we are truly having a positive impact as a result of our coordination with the United States.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  And if you – steadily since I think 2016, the murder rate has declined in El Salvador.  When it was – it’s still high, and no one is happy with the murder rate now, but it’s declined substantially over the years, over the past – since 2015 it’s declined substantially – the murder rate.  And I believe it was – it was last week you had the Department of State lowered the travel advisory for El Salvador.  It used to be a three, which was, I think, reconsider travel.  Now it’s at two, which is exercise caution.  And that’s not just obviously prosecution efforts; that’s the comprehensive efforts towards prevention, detection, and all the efforts that are going on both from the U.S. Government and INL and other agencies.

QUESTION:  But can you establish a clear link between a drop in the murder rate and these arrests, these convictions?  Is that so clear-cut?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  It’s – there’s a – it’s occurring at the same time, and MS has been disrupted.  There’s also been a lot of development projects.  The murder rates go up and down for various reasons.  Sometimes they’re politically driven by the gangs.  They try to control the murder rate to exercise some type of political control in El Salvador.  But overall, there’s been this – these heightened efforts.  Overall, the murder rate has gone down and it’s – a lot of it is attributable from other work that’s being done, both by the Salvadoran Government, the prosecutor’s office, U.S. efforts – INL, USAID, and OPDAT.

QUESTION:  (In Spanish.)

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

MODERATOR:  I’m sorry, can you just repeat that in English so we have the question in English.

QUESTION:  The benchmarks to measure success in El Salvador.

(Via interpreter)  Apart from the conviction rate, what other benchmarks are you using in El Salvador to measure that they’ve lost their ability to operate?

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (Via interpreter)  So the level of effectivity or effectiveness that I was talking about when I mentioned the 222 arrests is only related to the Sailors who were —

PARTICIPANT:  Convictions.

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (Via interpreter)  Or convictions, I’m sorry, convictions – is only related to the Sailors group, which is one of the most violent organizations.

QUESTION:  (Via interpreter)  Where do we see the weakness of that structure?

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (Via interpreter)  So they have – they don’t have people to be committing homicides.  They have to start recruiting individuals to collect their extortion payments.  They don’t have transportation to do their activities.  They don’t have houses either.  Their extortion houses are gone.  So they have to move away to the more rural areas which they call camps, and this – these are clear examples of the impact that it’s making.

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  So lastly, but not less important, in the last month in the eastern area we have been able to seize $35,000 in – (in Spanish.)

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  — from all their crimes.  That includes drugs, murders, extortions.

QUESTION:  And could you please share numbers?  I mean, this number of convictions are the return of which investment?  How much money has been put in to train how many prosecutors?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  I wouldn’t discuss – yeah, we don’t have numbers right now.  For specific numbers, the best —

QUESTION:  Or estimated, just to have an idea.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  — would be State Department.

MODERATOR:  Yeah, because they’re —

QUESTION:  Because we’re talking about the results but we don’t have the investment.  I mean, it’s hard to judge whether this is a big deal or not if we don’t – you need to see the whole picture.  How much has been put in to get this result?

MODERATOR:  Yeah, I mean, that’s – these are State Department-funded programs.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah, through the Prosperity Alliance and the different pillars, so it’s a little bit more complex.  I cannot give you —

MODERATOR:  They just want to be able to answer the —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah, we’re just – we’re – in the whole, to try to explain and answer your question, which I cannot fully answer, this is a big U.S. effort led by different agencies, but State is the one providing the foreign state assistance funds, but it provides it to different agencies.  USAID also is a big player in this effort.  So OPDAT is a very minimal player because we just focus on prosecutors and investigators.  So the information that we have provided here today is based on our program, so we can’t properly answer your question because you have to take, I think, into consideration also what other agencies are doing, like the FBI, HSI.

QUESTION:  And how many prosecutors have OPDAT trained?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Every prosecutor that handles gang investigations in El Salvador has been through our programs as long as they’ve passed what’s called the Leahy vetting process.

(In Spanish.)

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  So there’s – (in Spanish.)

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  There’s 760 prosecutors in El Salvador that are operational.  Not all of them handle gang cases, and most of them that handle gang cases have been through multiple ones of our trainings.

(In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  (In Spanish.)

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  (In Spanish.)

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  About 300, about 300 handle gangs.

QUESTION:  Three hundred out of 670?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  About 700, uh-huh, because there’s also sex crimes, there’s other types of units that we don’t work with necessarily as closely because our focus is on combatting organized crime.

QUESTION:  The sailors group is the same clica?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  (In Spanish.)

QUESTION:  There in the – here in the east coast and then there?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  (In Spanish.)

QUESTION:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Is it a different group but for the same clica?

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Are you guys familiar with the difference between a clica, a program, a Ranfla?

QUESTION:  No, no.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Okay, maybe we’ll go back to a 101.

MODERATOR:  Let her translate that.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah, the Sailors initiates as a clica in San Miguel, and it’s a very mystic group.  It’s not easy to get into that group.  It’s a very close-knit group.  But they have been able to reach national – or elevate it to a national —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Program.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  — program that has allowed them to then have contacts here in the United States and contacts with those individuals who get deported.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  So there’s – the general way that MS-13 is structured is you have what’s called the Ranfla, which is a committee of gang members.  It’s – this Ranfla Nacional, the national leadership, is in various penal institutions in El Salvador.  Below that, you have La Ranfla en Libertad, that is in the free – the leadership that is out, that is free, free outside of jail, not arrested.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  In the free community

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  They’re in the free community.  Below that —

QUESTION:  But Ranfla Nacional is in jail?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Ranfla Nacional are in jail.  And I’m not going to speak as to how – who they are or how many there are, but just to give a general idea.  Below that, below the Ranfla en Libertad, you have the corredoresCorredores or coordinadores are usually in charge of what’s called the program.  And just to – I’ll just give a very rough estimate.  I wonder if I should say how many – between 40 and 60?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  There’s between – no, there’s right now between 30 and 40 programs of MS.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Thirty and 40 programs of MS.

QUESTION:  In El Salvador?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Nationwide and worldwide.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yes.  In El Salvador primarily, but they have the same names in other places usually.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Below those programs are what’s called a clica.  A clica can be between five and 12, or 24, all different sizes.  But this – one programa will manage various clicas.  So that would be – that’s the general – how they’re organized.  The clica is the smallest level, and they report to the programa, and the corredores of the programa report to the Ranfla, either in Libertad en Libertad or in —

QUESTION:  So local authorities stay (inaudible)?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Very – very close.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  And these 30 to 40 programs, how many people are we talking about?  How many members?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  It depends on the program.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  (In Spanish.)

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  And a very difficult issue with the gangs is they don’t consider somebody gang member until they’ve done enough acts and gained the trust.  So somebody I would call a gang member, because he’s killed people on behalf of the gang.

QUESTION:  But they don’t —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  They may not count him as a gang member because he hasn’t killed enough or he hasn’t proven himself.  So the amount that they may claim they have as gang members is significantly less than the amount of people who are working on behalf of the gang, trying to work their way up the ranks, as well as the people who have no intention of ever being a member of the gang, but collaborate with the gang by providing information, collecting rent payments, or doing something like that.

QUESTION:  But what – what’s the most updated number of members?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  (In Spanish.)

QUESTION:  (In Spanish.)

QUESTION:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  (In Spanish.)

QUESTION:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  What would be the correct number to —

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

QUESTION:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Can’t give you an exact number.

QUESTION:  And how many collaborators?  (In Spanish.)

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

QUESTION:  (In Spanish.)

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

QUESTION:  (In Spanish.)

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (In Spanish.)

QUESTION:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  So for us, yes, we would count it because by being a collaborator, we count them.  It is relevant for us.

QUESTION:  Right.

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (Via interpreter)  So in that —

QUESTION:  (In Spanish.)

MODERATOR:  Hold on.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  So in that sense, that 60,000 number fluctuates because some retire, others come in to the group.  So we have to review or revise that number, because the impact that we have been creating requires a new analysis of that number.

QUESTION:  But that amount is the – all the people engaged with gang activity?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  (In Spanish.)

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  That’s a number I saw a couple years ago of active members, either in prison or out, considered by the gang to be gang members.

QUESTION:  Yeah, because —

QUESTION:  That was before —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Not in counting collaborators.

QUESTION:  But that was before the Sessions meeting.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Correct.

QUESTION:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  So what’s the new number?  Basically, what all this work has —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Those same people still remain gang members even if they’ve been arrested.  If they’ve been indicted – in fact, when they go to prison in the U.S. – or sorry, in El Salvador, they have to say what gang they’re from because that affects what prison they go to.

QUESTION:  Right.  Of course.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  So they – by being arrested and being indicted, they don’t stop being a gang member.

QUESTION:  So – but – so is it okay if we say that the number remains, after two years of work in coordination among the – the number has not changed?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  (In Spanish.)

QUESTION:  Is it okay if I write that?

MODERATOR:  It’s a – that’s – I think that’s a little misleading.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  But I – that’s why we need a number.

EL SALVADOR OFFICIAL:  (Via interpreter)  So that number – to be able to respond to you – like, who – what is the official number, how was that number obtained?  Is that a number – is it an official number or is it a number that was provided by the gangs, or is it a number that was provided by responsible reporting by – investigative reporting?  An analysis would have to be done in order to give you a good answer, a valid answer.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  I think – and I think to give you an accurate answer, it would have to come from another source, because we don’t study that.

QUESTION:  Okay.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  The ministry of justice and security of El Salvador, I know they collect statistics and have an analysis on that.  They do that periodically.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  The police.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  The Policia Nacional Civil has those statistics.  Fiscalia is in charge with investigating and prosecuting and us as well, so I don’t think you can get —

QUESTION:  Okay.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  We probably don’t have the accurate numbers.

QUESTION:  Understood.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  But they study.  I mean, they’re out there.

QUESTION:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Of course.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  They’re there, but we don’t —

QUESTION:  So in general terms, if I say – kind of following up of the question I made before, is the MS-13 weaker?  Because we said that it has changed its face, it has restructured itself, the (inaudible) profitability has changed.  So could we say it’s weaker?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Yes.  Based – I mean, based on our observations – based on our observations, yes.

MODERATOR:  So I think we’ve got time for one more question.

QUESTION:  Do you happen to have numbers on – of – yeah, I’m obsessed with numbers because – how many prosecutors in the other countries have been trained besides El Salvador?  Just an idea and it doesn’t have to be an exact number.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I honestly don’t know.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  We don’t have those numbers here.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I don’t know.  I focus on trainings in El Salvador.  I can’t really say.  I do know that there are individuals in Honduras and Guatemala – prosecutors who come to El Salvador or we’ve gone to them and shared best practices with them as well.  But I can’t – I don’t know the number.

QUESTION:  But —

MODERATOR:  Is there – is there an entity within those governments that he can contact that may be helpful?

QUESTION:  But El Salvador is a country with more —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Gang members.

QUESTION:  No, no, no.

MODERATOR:  Prosecutor.

QUESTION:  With more prosecutors trained under this program.  No other country has more —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Correct.

QUESTION:  — prosecutors trained than El Salvador.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  They have more gangs, gang members, and they also have more prosecutors —

QUESTION:  That have been trained on the OPDAT.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  — who are signed to gang investigations and more, therefore, that have been trained by us.

QUESTION:  Right.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Correct.

QUESTION:  No other country has more training than El Salvador on the OPDAT?

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  On gang matters, that’s correct.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yes.  Yeah.  Because keep in mind that one of the programs that he leads is the anti-extortion program, which was specifically designed first for El Salvador.

QUESTION:  I see.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  And through regional efforts then, we’ve then expanded.

QUESTION:  From El Salvador – expanded.  I see.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  We’ve expanded for the other countries to collaborate on those.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  We’ve been there longer and we have —

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  It’s the oldest program.  Of the three countries, it’s the oldest program also.

QUESTION:  Started – yeah.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  We have three people there.  In Guatemala, we have one.  And in Honduras, we have one.

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  We have one.

MODERATOR:  I would refer you also to the fact sheets that were sent out with the announcement.  I can resend them to you after this as a reference.

QUESTION:  Oh I missed that – I missed them.

MODERATOR:  I’ll resend the fact sheets with more data in there that will help you guys.

MODERATOR:  And I attached that to the e-mail I sent you (inaudible).

SENIOR JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  There are some numbers in there.

QUESTION:  Yeah.

MODERATOR:  All right.  With that I think we’re going to wrap things up.

QUESTION:  Yeah, a story without numbers —

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much for coming today.

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future